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Window on Darwin

Whatever else you call Darwin - Australia's Asia, Top End capital, Croc City – most people would have to agree that 'Survivor City' sums it up best of all. Bombed in World War II, flattened by a massive cyclone in 1974, threatened by Australia's largest oil spill in 2009, either this place is very unlucky or it is just incredibly resilient.

Take a look at the heavy challenges that the environment and the world has thrown at it. Even though Darwin is Australia's smallest capital (pop. 146,000) it has probably contributed more to this country's headlines than most other state capitals.

 

 

Darwin was named after the British naturalist Charles Darwin by Commander Wickham, captain of HMS Beagle in 1839. He was one of the first British people to see the area, and the naming was in honour of the fact that Darwin had sailed with the ship on an earlier expedition. Darwin himself did not ever get this far north, visiting instead Port Jackson in NSW and King George Sound in what is now Western Australia.

 

 

While hundreds of thousands of Australians have fought overseas in wars, many people forget that there have been attacks on this land as well. Darwin bore the brunt of Japanese attacks in 1942 as this plaque (above), prominently displayed in one of the city streets, shows.

 

 

In the Defence of Darwin Military Museum on the outskirts of the city, this list is a sobering reminder as well. To visit Darwin, as we did just before Christmas, you would never guess how close it has come to annihilation on several occasions.

 

 

Where else but the Territory would you see a newspaper flier with this headline? Most people have heard of the massive crocodiles found in the Top End of Australia. In fact these fearsome creatures account for the success of a good proportion of its tourism attractions. But cane toads have proved to be a real problem. Originating from Queensland, in recent years they have begun to infiltrate the fertile north, especially around Kakadu to the east of Darwin. However, according to the NT News, it seems the killer crocs are at last on the side of the humans!

 

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Today's Darwin shows little hint of previous disaters. Tree-lined boulevards, glimpses of the bay, wide roads, little traffic and reasonably easy parking make this an easy place to live in and visit. There's a dreamy sort of air about the place that is best described as languid. Tropical fruit is in abundance and a good place to find it is at the several evening markets along the bay. Here you will find Asian dishes in abundance, as Darwin is closer to Asia than Adelaide and other Australian capitals.

 

 

Unsurprisingly, Darwin has the highest proportion of Aboriginal residents of any other Australian capital. It is the ideal place to look for traditional aboriginal art and craft, but be careful.....

 

 

...some things may look as if they would make authentic souvenirs, but check the label (and the spelling!) first.

 

 

 

Cyclone Tracy's devastation of Darwin, when 70 percent of the buildings were destoyed, means that much of the town has been rebuilt using techniques and materials which should help withstand other cyclones.

 

 

Massive banyan trees like this have their own means of survival. The dozens of aerial roots anchor the branches and allow the foliage to spread wide and provide shade to a large area - very acceptable in a place like Darwin. Here the tropical savannah climate means that May to September is the 'dry' season, although daytime temperatures may reach around 32C. The other months are the 'wet' season, sometimes euphemistically referred to as 'tropical summer' with humidity around 70 percent. Although the temperatures remain around the same, many people find it more uncomfortable. This is the season for cyclones and monsoonal rains.

 

 

A climate such as Darwin's creates a good thirst, and there are plenty of hotels (pubs) as well as every level of dining, ranging  from the well-respected Hanuman restaurants which serve Chinese and Indian cuisines, to pizzerias, pie shops, cafes and Asian restaurants.

 

 

Darwin's Aviation Heritage Centre, opened in 1990, is housed in a hangar several kilometres from the city centre. It began with a small group of enthusiasts keen to preserve aviation relics salvaged after Cyclone Tracy.

 

Allow plenty of time to see all the various aircraft on display here. In pride of place is a huge 52-metre long B52 bomber and many other smaller planes such as the one above, a helicopter and gyrocopter.

This Spitfire replica was constructed in Queensland and brought to the museum in a RAAF Hercules. 

There are also parts  of aircraft, and some which show the scars of time spent in combat, like the one above.

(the story of Nothing Sacred)

Nothing Sacred has its own sad story, and one worth pausing and reading.

Unsurprisingly it is crocodiles that still remain high on many tourists' must-do lists. At Crocodylus Park, guests can board a boat and travel along waterways to sight these huge amphibious monsters.

In a neat twist on nature, it is possible to dine on crocodile meat - eating the creature that would eat us, given the opportunity! If you have a barbecue nearby, you can buy crocodile meat products to cook at home.

One of the crocodile's major defenses against hunters is its tough, almost bulletproof skin. In the gift shop at Crocosaurus Cove, right in the city centre, we saw this enormous tanned crocodile skin, stronger than the thickest leather.

An adult male crocodile can reach a length of six metres and weigh up to a tonne. Obviously humans are no match for a fully grown croc in the wild! Just look at the size of that foot (above).

Upstairs in the centre, visitors can watch crocodiles being fed or take the challenge and feed one themselves, well supervised of course. If their courage is even stronger, there is the Cage of Death where they can enter a clear capsule and be lowered down amongst the crocs!

On the seventieth anniversary of the ending of WWII in 1945, many people have a heightened interest in military museums. Several kilometres from the city, Defence of Darwin Military Museum has many interesting features. There is an outdoor area where many of the larger relics are housed, as well as an indoor display area that shows, with displays and video, how the war was played out in this area.

A long wall in the gardens has brass plates commemorating all 235 people who died in the war in this area, including details of how they perished.

Spend time in this place and absorb the fact that this part of Australia suffered so much, and that the courage of those who fought, helped change the course of our history.

Apart from the musuems, today's Darwin has little to show of the turbulent past. Near to the Defence of Darwin we find a tranquil view across the bay to the city in the distance.

Getting around the city is easy. If you don't have a car, these buses allow passengers to hop on and off at a  number of sightseeing spots around Darwin. Otherwise stay onboard for the entire 60-minute or 90-minute tour.

And yes, there are shops! The main shopping strip centres around the Smith Street pedestrian mall.

The cooling fountains outside the Galleria Arcade is a good landmark and meeting spot. There is free WiFi in the area and you can find out more here.... about the shops.

Although these bush foods, sometimes known as 'bush tucker' (tucker is slang for food), come from outside the city – often from Central Australia, far to the south – you may encounter some on restaurant menus. Look for quandongs, bush tomatoes, riberries and many more. 

Even if you are short on time in Darwin, do take the opportunity to drive along the waterfront on the western side of the peninsula on which Darwin has been sited. Bicentennial Park is cool and lush and you will see some of the city's major buildings: the Legistlative Assembly (above) and Government House, as well as the quirky 'Deck Chair Cinema' on the beachfront, the War Memorial and Old Admiralty House.

Australia's northernmost outpost has certainly had its moments of stress and danger. Today it plays host to passengers from cruise ships berthed at its modern wharves, and vistors from all over the world. This aerial view shows the simple grid layout of the major CBD streets. Notice how close they are to Darwin's many beaches. 

This city may be a long way from the rest of Australia, but most locals seem to prefer it that way.

More information.....

Text: Sally Hammond

Images: Sally Hammond and Wikipedia

Video: Gordon Hammond

 

 

 

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